MSt alumnus James Ellis on his novel, The Wrong Story, being published

MSt alumnus James Ellis’s novel The Wrong Story has been published by Unbound.

After falling from a car park roof, cartoonist Tom Hannah is left with partial amnesia and the feeling that something important is missing from his life. His journey to recovery is hampered by a growing inability to distinguish between real and imaginary events. The characters from his cartoon strip assume a grimy reality, while the lives of his family and friends appear ever more unreal.

The Wrong Story is about the borderlands between memory, imagination and the real world. It is about the desire for self-determination and the obligations on a responsible creator. But mostly it’s about a man who falls off a roof and wants to know why – was it an accident, did he jump, or was he pushed?

James on how it feels to see his first novel published, and how it feels now that it is “out there”:

It feels great to see my first novel published. I’m happy, excited, proud and relieved. It has an ISBN, a shipping weight, it occupies shelf space. It’s a book. What began with a few doodled notes in Rewley House developed into an MSt year two project and ended up as an 80,000 word paperback.  Along the way it was pitched, rejected, picked up, crowdfunded, drafted, edited, proofread, printed and distributed. So yes, it feels great.

But being ‘out there’? That can be scary. People might read it. What would their reviews be like? The rankings? It has talking animals in it! I readjusted my thinking. The published book is not my story any more, the one I nurtured for two and a half years. It has independence. It is complete. It is rubbing shoulders (or covers) with all the other novels that are out there. My feeling now is that it should stay out there for as long as possible.

For more information on The Wrong Story and to buy it, go to Unbound.

MSt alumna Alex Coulton on “Ten things I learned whilst submitting my novel to agents….”

11800065_417151035154165_7567043301297479512_n-3I graduated from the MSt in 2014, and took another eighteen months to finish my first fiction manuscript. It involved a few dramatic decisions (saving hard for a year so as to afford a six month break from work; leaving the country; writing full-time) but in January 2016 I found myself submitting query letters and partial manuscripts to agents in the UK. Six weeks later, I was signing an Agency Agreement with Sue Armstrong at Conville&Walsh. It’s been a fantastic process, but a real learning curve, particularly in some of the following areas:

  1. The Polished Part vs. the Scruffy Whole – a common mistake in debut writers who think we are at the manuscript submission stage when we’re not, quite. Your opening chapters are likely to be awesome. They’re polished and primed to within an inch of their lives for tutorials, competitions and work-shopping. But what I learned after the first two agents passed on my full manuscript was that I hadn’t held the rest of my novel to the same sort of account. Agent Jo Unwin says, ‘Use it or lose it,’ and if something isn’t actively serving a purpose in pushing the story forward, then do the latter. It may involve killing an angel, and cutting your dreamiest passage of prose in the interests of upping the ante with pace and narrative traction, but steel yourself to be brutal.
  1. Synopsis – about as exciting in some respects as Maths homework, but ironically the most important part of your submission as it will be the first bit to be seen. Each agent is different, and agents themselves are different to competitions (Lucy Cavendish Prize, etc) but on balance, aim for a page and do include the big plot spoilers, whilst trying to maintain the hook of a book-jacket blurb. You will probably end up doing this part ten or twenty times. It’s worth leaving in a drawer to brew and then looking at again in a few days. Really. Sit on your hands. Disable your wi-fi. Euan Thorneycroft at AM Heath suggests getting someone else (a beta reader) to write it for you. Whatever you do, do not submit until it’s perfect!
  1. First batch of queries – compile this carefully. If I were going to do it again, I would draw up two equal lists of ten-to-twelve agents I was really excited by, but trying to keep my Dream Team Ten equally spread through the two lists. I would then submit partial manuscripts to one list at a time.
  1. Once you start to get requests for full manuscripts, notify everyone to whom you initially sent a partial. This is important: it is a courtesy but also a heads-up, and will probably bring your submission to the top of most agents’ lists. You should do the same once you get your first offer of representation. Keep everyone in the loop.
  1. The Waiting. This is the worst part of the whole process. You may get an agent ping back to you in twenty-four hours asking for a full ms, and then hear nothing for a fortnight or more. For the record: the agent I signed with read the partial over a weekend, asked me for the full on Monday and called me in on the same Friday. Things can move quickly if someone is genuinely in love with your book, but don’t assume slowness is lack of interest. Remember, agents have to prioritise their existing clients’ manuscripts and edits over unsolicited submissions.
  1. The Second Date Brush Off – inevitably, some agents who request your partial will pass on your full. Agent Jo Unwin reassures writers that in the same way that you yourself wouldn’t read everything in any given bookshop, agents are the same. ‘There are plenty of amazing books out there that I’m ever going to get around to reading,’ she says
  1. Offers of representation – getting that email or phone call will, if you’re like me, make you feel like a teenager again. But as Clare Morgan advised me, ‘They (agents) are courting YOU,’ and you want to make sure this really is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Your book is your baby, and your agent is going to be a weird combination of teacher, sitter and nanny. Some questions to ask:i) What is their vision of the book and its place in the market? Can they think of ‘comps’ for editors (eg comparable books to yours)?

    ii) Which editors do they have in mind for it? (I was impressed with one agent being able to think for about ten seconds and then name three or four particular editors whom she thought might like the book.)

    iii) Do their suggested edits (if any) ‘feel’ right?

    iv) Are you comfortable with them? Is the ‘chemistry’ right? One agent I met with just made me feel anxious. I felt I wouldn’t be able to hold my own in a discussion and might end up getting pushed in a direction which didn’t feel right.

  2. Choosing. Once an agent has made you an offer, you don’t have to accept or reject it straight away. One agent I spoke to said he had an offer still under consideration with an author six months later, although, understandably, he didn’t seem overwhelmingly thrilled about this! When I asked him what was normal, he suggested a response within two weeks is about right, but everyone will be different.
  3. Moving forwards. Once you have read through the agency agreement, checked or clarified anything you’re not sure about, and signed, you should let everyone else in your submission list know of your decision. Be courteous, thank agents who have taken the time to read and given feedback. Don’t bad-mouth anyone, ever. It’s a very small world out there….
  4. Crack open the champagne and get very excited. The real work starts here…!

Alex Coulton graduated from the MSt in Creative Writing in September 2014. In July 2015 she gave up teaching to focus on her writing. ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ is her first fiction manuscript, and she is now represented by Susan Armstrong at Conville&Walsh.

 

MSt Tutor Anna Beer on moving on …

I completed the first draft of my new book almost exactly a year ago. For the last twelve months, my writer’s life has been one of editing and proof-reading, punctuated by meetings with marketing people and a belated education in the ways of social media. Apparently, it’s all about the hashtag these days. (My last trade book was published in 2008, a lifetime ago). With all due respect to Oxford University Press, for whom I’ve done a study guide, I have not written a single creative word.

In the past, I have moved onto a new project as soon as I handed a finished manuscript to my publisher. I loved the sense that whatever was happening to that manuscript, I was making something new. (I can’t say it made production problems or harsh reviews any easier to bear, but at least they were not the only thing crossing my desk.) But not this time. I tried pretty much everything from buying a new notebook (don’t laugh, it’s worked in the past…) to a lone cycle ride from St Emilion to Barolo. The notebook remained almost untouched, and all I acquired en route from Bordeaux to Piedmont was an even greater love of really good wine and a new appreciation of anyone who cycles – rather than walk – up the Colle di Sestriere.

The final throw of the dice was to take myself off and do something completely different, during which time I would honestly contemplate the possibility of Never Writing Again. Here’s what I wrote in the midst of that experience:

I have not had a cup of coffee for weeks. Nor have my lips touched wine. Instead, I breakfast on jasmin tea, with fruit and small pastries bought from a stall in the market across the road, and not just any road – the terrifying National Road 1, the embodiment of anarchy. I sip my tea while a couple of fishermen lazily search the ponds below me. The sun rises, and the cool, fresh early morning disappears. Continue reading

MSt tutor Jenny Lewis on being one of the “Mulberry Bush Women of the Year 2015”

Woman of the Year 2015 lunchOne of my students very sweetly nominated me as a ‘Mulberry Bush Women of the Year 2015’ and I was duly invited to lunch at Balliol. I was surprised and grateful to be nominated as the nominees are chosen as a mark of admiration for the way they have improved the lives of others and inspired them.

This was the fifteenth Mulberry School Women of the Year lunch which in the past has featured speakers such as Baroness Scotland, Nicola Horlick and P.D. James. The event is a way of fund-raising for, and raising awareness of, the achievements of the Mulberry Bush School which gives hope to children who have experienced high levels of domestic violence and neglect.

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MSt tutor Jenny Lewis on POESI-O-RAMA Festival, Malmö, Sweden, 2015

‘The music says freedom exists…’

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MSt Tutor, Jenny Lewis, at the POESI-O-RAMA Festival, Malmö, Sweden, 11-13 September, 2015

I was honoured to be asked to read with Adnan al-Sayegh at the POESI-O-RAMA Festival in Malmo, Sweden on 12 September 2015. Invited by Hassan Hadi, Director of the Modern Art Theatre Group and Björn Ganzer, the Swedish poet (and rock musician) who travelled with us on the Al-Kalima ‘Poetry and Resistance’ Festival in Morocco earlier this year, the festival was dedicated to the memory of the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish Poet Laureate, Tomas Tranströmer. Continue reading